Beheading The Cruiser – Oisín Ó Fágáin on the no-legacy of Conor Cruise O Brien

Upstart 2011 Election Poster.

“Human Nature doesn’t include all human beings” Conor Cruise O Brien

Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Intellectual who Advocated Condoms on Malthusian Grounds

I watched ‘The Siege of Jadotville’ last night and was delighted to see Conor Cruise-through-my-gilded-life O’Brien has gotten a long overdue drubbing.

Now that O’Brien has emerged in the public eye once more, it is probably worth, briefly and partially, assessing his legacy.

He was the first, and definitely the most powerful, of the free state’s signifying-nothing intellectuals; the first of our many ‘I-wonder-what-he’ll-believe-today’ writers, who is famous because he was articulate, a man of letters, wrote good prose, and spoke like a 19th century British statesman. He was what is generously referred to in our local lexicon as a character, and he did untold damage whenever he poked his nose into real life.

Everything O’Brien purportedly believed in, he went against again and again. His principles were thin air and at every stage of his career he did a contrarian, counterintuitive turn, pretending he was radical and original, but at every stage of his seemingly never-ending career he reinforced oppression and had the gall to say it was in the name of the oppressed.

He was a republican who called for a united Ireland, but despised all republican movements. He believed republican tensions stemmed from a narrow-minded Catholicism, and yet he said that those who were not publicly Catholic were ill-suited to public office. He believed the church to be necessary to the morals of Ireland, though he himself was publicly an atheist. He advocated condoms on Malthusian grounds. He was a life-long advocate of free speech and freedom of the press, but he was singlehandedly responsible for introducing and vociferously enforcing Section 31 in RTE and banning Sinn Féin, and all republican, spokespeople. He said civilians murdered on Bloody Sunday were ‘operating for the IRA.’ While calling for a united Ireland, later in his life, to achieve this end, he joined the UK Unionist party. In his memoir, he pleaded with unionists to consider the benefits of a united Ireland, as that way ‘we could thwart Sinn Féin.’ Again and again, he proclaimed there was a blood lust in Irish Catholics, and he hated the peace process, and opposed it every step of the way, because it gave terrorism too much legitimacy and would lead to civil war. He was fond of the Easter rising, though it would have been better if civil servants had carried it out.

Locally, he proclaimed that the Irish ‘were a stigmatised people.’ Internationally, his tone and statements suggested we were a backward nation. He wrote a book on Zionism, comparing Jews to Irish Catholics, and, during a period when Israel attacked most of its neighbouring states, he claimed that Israel was besieged. His pro-Israel articles on the Lebanon invasion in The Observer, of which he was the editor, could only be described as hysterical and fanatical from even a moderate, academic two-state perspective. Many who sided with dispossessed Palestinians were accused of anti-Semitism. His scattered writings on Muslims are full of a disgusting, wilting condescension. He was anti-racist, but vehemently opposed the academic boycott of apartheid South Africa.

He joined the Labour Party in 1969, though he held no truck with the cause of Irish Labour, because it was the only party in our country which accepted, or respected, middle-class intellectuals. He hated Fianna Fáil, in their more populist left stage and in their Haughey-era, and from all his articles the stench of condescension is fairly large. Every tract he wrote, whether it was on farming, Israel or Fine Gael, was littered with quotes from Racine, Milton, Dickens and Tacitus. Along with choice quotes, in everything he wrote there is also something that styles itself as a fluid anti-populism, but it is far too easy to understand it as anti-rural, anti-peasant, anti-working class. To give you a picture of how he felt himself to be, he once described himself as ‘a lighthouse in a bog.’

Finally, he believed his political articles were so good that they were art and duly he abused Ireland’s generous laws that allow profits on art to be tax-free.

His entire career, viewed from the outside, is all very run-of-the-mill and unremarkable. He was a constant proponent of the liberal centre, wherever that centre happened to be pushed at the time. He was a talented, articulate, educated middle-class lad who styled himself as an international intellectual. Ultimately, he symbolised the weakness and uselessness of the Irish middle-class Catholic ascendancy that believed in absolutely nothing and represented absolutely no one. This class couldn’t even take care of its own interests, and we can look to yesterday’s budget as continuing proof of this state of affairs. As a side note, it is always worth remembering that the Irish middle class is the least developed, least hegemonic, and least organised middle class in Western Europe, and, actually, in O’Brien it got a better intellectual than it deserved.
But, still, none of this is noteworthy.

What made O’Brien special was that at every stage of the way he shouted for freedom, liberty, fairness, equality, an end to oppression, an end to colonialism, and, at every stage of the way, whenever a category called ‘the people,’ ‘the working class’ or ‘the subaltern’ emerged, he hated them and used his voice to silence them. Throughout his work ‘the people’ are trumpeted and then an event happens in real time, not through the dewy-eyed mist of history, and the people become visible and he hates them with a hatred that is full of fear.

There is no proper term for this type of person, though public intellectuals of this ilk have occurred in every country that has so far produced a middle class. They claim to have working class parentage, which is somehow supposed to insulate them from critique. They claim to be oppressed from some perspective or other. I call them inorganic intellectuals, though this is probably an unsatisfactory term. What makes them different from your everyday run-of-the-mill liberal is that they continuously side with emancipatory violence and politics the further away from home it occurs, or the deeper in the past it is buried. They are with the eternal underdog, as long as underdog is understood as a powerless, toothless category. Once the dog bites, or whines to be included in the democratic process, they flee up their ivory tower to be protected by their class and their institutions. Their enormous skillset is a tool that obscures that they are a weathervane that charts the centre’s mood, but what makes them dangerous is that they side with the oppressed when there is no struggle and lull you into a sense of security.

Finally whenever these people are put in the real world, in positions of real practical power, with all its responsibility, they are inefficient, haphazard and dangerous, and I am over the moon that his debacle in the Congo has been recently publicised, over which, incidentally, he didn’t lose a night’s sleep if you read his Tony Blair-like delusions on his time in the UN.

Those young Irish men in Jadotville were heroes, who acquitted themselves wonderfully under extreme duress. They honestly believed that Ireland was a sovereign nation that had never proved to be an international aggressor, and that they were upholding democratic elections during a period of decolonisation. Now, obviously the formation of a nation-state, whose borders Belgian billionaires drew on a map, overseen by a body like the UN, isn’t a simple or neutral process, and that deserves its own article, but those boys were total legends and they were forgotten and left for dead, both before and after their return.
That mission was an ungodly mess, and an entire platoon of young men with no field experience were given a death sentence that O’Brien did not in any way alleviate, though he was uniquely positioned to do so. But despite the odds, they overcame their death sentence when they were set upon by thousands of anti-communist mercenaries financed by Belgian miners. They were then forgotten, brushed under the carpet, disgraced, while O’Brien went from strength to strength.

It was just the beginning of an illustrious career that would last another fifty years. It is always worth remembering that no matter how many working class and African lives you endanger it will not in any way impede your ascent to national treasure status. You might even get a well-written autobiography out of it.

Oisín Ó Fágáin is a regular columnist for The Bogmans Cannon & the author of the short fiction collection Hostages.